With the newest Destiny expansion on the horizon, Bungie recently offered a mea culpa of sorts for The Dark Below, which has been much criticized for its overly complicated approach to gear progression and rather paltry selection of content.
A few days ago, Bungie's Luke Smith took to NeoGAF to promise things will get better in the upcoming House of Wolves DLC, "Nothing specific to announce at this time, but the mistakes we made with the [The Dark Below] reward economy will not be repeated. Mistakes like: Vendor gear invalidating the effort of [Vault of Glass] Raiders. Upgrading an Exotic reseting [sic] its talents."
"Our philosophy about rewards/loot continue to evolve as we see how players play and react," he continued. "We will continue to improve acquisition stories and frequency (My understanding of the perception is that Crota's End drop rates are much improved vs. Vault of Glass: footnote below), lessen the grind and get players to the fun parts of their arsenal faster."
He finished by calling out Ascendant Shards, yet another material in Destiny used to upgrade Legendary gear, "We're not intending to adjust the shard economy for this Tier—we don't want to invalidate player effort (again). But removing the barrier between that new drop you're excited to get and actually being able to equip it as a member of your arsenal are something we will do going forward."
The problem that Destiny faced with The Dark Below is not a new one. Most MMORPGs have had to grapple with the problem of hard-won gear becoming outdated and useless upon the release of a new expansion. When I was living in Japan, I remember meeting a couple had given up on World of WarCraft upon the release of Burning Crusade. They were moving onto Vanguard (remember Vanguard?), they told me, because all of the loot they had worked so hard to obtain had become obsolete. As another player later told me, "Stuff from Molten Core got outclassed by [green quality loot] pretty quickly."
Somehow, though, Destiny managed to make the problem even worse. To recap, The Dark Below was released in December, and with it came a higher level cap and new loot. Aware that they were in danger of running afoul of the same issues that have plagued World of WarCraft over the years, Bungie opted to buff the existing Exotic gear, at which point things got a little weird.
Rather than simply improving all existing armor, Bungie opted to introduce a system in which players had to trade in old gear for the new and improved version. That transaction was handled through Xur, a vendor who only appears during the weekend, complicating the process. What's more, upgrades weren't free—they cost a rather large amount of a currency called Glimmer. The final straw was Bungie's decision to reset item upgrade progress, thus wiping out hours of grinding and enraging players who had devoted so much time and effort to building up their gear.
This is not a new problem for Destiny. In attempting to essentially re-invent a well-established genre, Bungie has designed needlessly complicated gameplay systems that have required inordinate amounts of grinding, most infamously with the introduction of "Light" after Level 20, making progress contingent on getting the right drops. In doing so, Bungie has not only failed to address long-standing issues with the MMO genre, but actually compounded them.
Overthinking the Plumbing
As a wise engineer once said, "The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain."
It's good that Bungie seems to be aware, to a degree, that their game is needlessly time-consuming. They aren't going to solve problems like obsolete gear overnight, but they can at least avoid exacerbating it to the degree that they have with The Dark Below; and if we're being completely honest, Destiny itself.
In the meantime, Bungie would be well-served by thinking of ways to maximize their content in addition to mitigating the grind. After all, it's much more fun to dive deep into a well-designed dungeon to find a piece of epic loot than it is to repeat the same instance over and over again, all the time praying that you get the right drop. Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton had the right of it when he likened The Dark Below turning a "meagre handful of story missions, a single strike, and a single raid into dozens and dozens of hours of gameplay" to jam scraped over too much toast.
This, like the issue of obsolete gear, is not a new issue among MMORPGs. As plenty of other studios have discovered, player appetites are voracious, and every scrap of content will be hungrily gobbled up, at which point they will demand more. Even World of WarCraft, which has been around for more than a decade and is absolutely gigantic, still has to deal with this problem to an extent. There is just no getting around it outside of continuing to pump out a large volume of high-quality missions, raids, and events. In the MMORPG genre, content isn't just king, it's next to god. And like Star Wars: The Old Republic before it, Destiny doesn't have enough of it. Grinding is no substitute.
Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like the flood of content will be coming any time soon. House of Wolves is about as expansive as The Dark Below, which means that most players will knock it out over the course of a weekend. Absent a really big content and gameplay overhaul down the road, there's a decent chance that many of its biggest problems won't be fixed until the sequel. Hopefully by then Bungie's hard-won lessons will have truly taken effect.